Serving Who?

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“Did you really fast for me?” (Zechariah 7:5).

In the book of Zachariah, there is a tragic event that takes place. Sometime after the captives have returned home from their seventy-year exile, a group of men inquire of the priests and ask this question: “Should we mourn and fast in the fifth month as we have done these many years?” Apparently, the people fasted and prayed during this period while they were exiled in Babylon. On the surface both the fasting and the question seem legit. After all, they were in exile being punished for their sin. Responding with prayer and fasting seems the appropriate thing to do.

However, God’s response to the question reveals a startling fact of the human heart (both theirs and ours). God responds to the question with these penetrating words, “Ask all the people of the land and the priests: when you fasted and lamented in the fifth and in the seventh months for these seventy years, did you really fast for me?” Ouch. I don’t think the delegation asking the question anticipated such a response. Maybe they thought they would be commended on how pious they were during those solemn times of fasting. Instead, God placed a mirror before their heart and revealed something they thought was hidden from view. God continues His response, “When you eat and drink, do you not eat and drink simply for yourselves?”

God saw their piety was, in fact, a self-serving act. During those years of hardship, they fasted and prayed because they wanted the hardship to end. But, God was revealing they should have wanted to draw closer to God, which would have led the people to live a life of obedience before Him. So, God says to them, “Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?” In other words, should you not have responded during the exile the same way the prophets urged your fathers to respond before the exile occurred? Should you not have sought obedience to God during your time in exile?

Their fathers ignored the prophets. The message of the prophets was for the people to return to God. “Return to me and I will return to you” was the heart of God’s message (Zach 1:3; Jeremiah 15:19; Malachi 3:7). The message entailed more than simple obedience. It was a call to seek God and to love Him (Deut 6:4-5). Obedience flows from a heart of love (John 14:15). Their act of piety where they fasted for a month during those seventy years was not an act of love whereby they were truly seeking and worshiping God. It was an act of self-interest where they were seeking their lot in life to be improved. The fact they even asked the question betrayed what was in their heart. In effect they were asking, “Since things are improving for us, God doesn’t really need to us continue those times of fasting, does He?”

After seventy years in exile, nothing really changed. The hearts of the people were the same coming out of exile as they were going in. God was not the object of their love: comfort and security was. Their religion was skin deep. When life got better their desire to worship diminished proportionally.

“Did you really fast for me?” This is a penetrating question. It revealed that the people’s religious life had nothing to do with God. They went about their religious activities only because they believed it might make life better. Through Isaiah God said, these “people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isa 29:13; Matt 15:8). It challenges us to ask the question of ourselves: why do we really worship? “Did you really fast for me?” Do we really worship to seek God? Do we really pray to discern His will? Do we really love God? Do we want to obey Him? Or, does our motivation lie elsewhere?

The next time we’re sitting in church we should let the question ring in our ears: “Did you really fast for me?” God already knows the answer. Do we?

Preaching 101

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“Preacher, your long winded! I’ve got lunch plans and your preaching is interfering!” So said the anxious church member who thought a twenty minute sermon once a week was all the church needs, because, “No one remembers what you say anyhow!” I hope his chicken and dumplings were memorable. Church life has some interesting twists and turns. But, such encounters raise the question, “What is the real purpose of preaching?” Every preacher knows that the closer they get to the 12 o’clock hour, the more fidgety the people become. Pass that sacred time threshold and worship becomes something else altogether.

Over time it’s easy to forget why something was started. And what had a specific purpose becomes obscured as time passes. Church worship services sometimes fit into that category. Many people attend church every week, and if you were to ask them what the purpose is, they would most likely say, “To worship.” On the surface, that sounds good. But, then ask, “What is worship, and why do we do it?” At that point, the answers become thin and vague. The reality is that many people who attend church don’t really understand the purpose.

When Christ created his church, he was very specific in its purpose. Over time, his vision for the church has been obscured. Today, people think the purpose of church life is to attend church. It’s not uncommon to find people who believe attending church on Sunday morning is what God desires. Bring up the topic of church life and it’s not uncommon for people to say, Continue reading

The Pathway to Fruitfulness

Faithfulness-and-Fruitfulness

Introduction

It was during the greeting time in worship when he asked me the question, “What’s your plan to reach our community?” He was an evangelist who was visiting the church. He and his wife had attended church for several months. I had been to his house to visit them. We had some good conversations. My answer to him was brief: “In a word,” I said, “discipleship.” He turned away as I went to shake someone’s hand behind him. I never saw him in church again. That night as I was leaving for vacation with my family, I received a message on Facebook where he “rebuked” me. That was his word.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. Discipleship is a word that has come to mean different things to different people. But if there is one thing I have learned in ministry, it is that discipleship has lost its significance as being the foundational ministry of the church. There are many good things a church can do by way of ministry, but if the church is not focusing on discipleship as the focal point of everything it does, then it may very well not be fulfilling the very purpose for which Christ created and commissioned his church.[1] In this article I will argue that discipleship is the path to fruitfulness for the church. True, lasting transformational growth (both numerically and spiritually) will be most evident when discipleship is the leading vision that defines what the church does. Hence, church growth will be most fruitful when discipleship is the primary ministry of the church.[2]

Understanding the Mission

Any discussion of church growth and the spiritual factors that lead to such growth must begin by Continue reading

The Biblical Marks of Discipleship

Plant Sequence
One of the current needs of the church today is to recover the biblical concept of discipleship. Over the past generation the understanding of discipleship as being foundational to the mission and life of the church has been watered down. During the same period of time one can find many resources devoted to the topic. However, instead of being the foundational principle upon which the church should operate, discipleship has been relegated to just one ministry amongst many within the church. During this time, the church has unofficially adopted the strategy of running programs as being the necessary approach to building a healthy church. Hence churches have children’s programs, youth programs, evangelism programs, discipleship programs, and music and worship programs – amongst many others. This partitioning of programs has led people to see discipleship as just another program within the larger church with the effect that people see it as an option or preference. One person joins the choir, another goes to the discipleship class, but both are “active” in ministry. And while that may be so, as a result of partitioning the church into programs, the church is not fulfilling the great commission.

Before Jesus ascended to the Father he made clear the purpose of the church. Every gospel account and the book of Acts communicates some version of the Great Commission. The most explicit enunciation of the Great Commission is found is Matthews’s gospel. Their Jesus said,

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV).

From this text it is clear that the Great Commission is not limited to evangelism. And while the church has always understood that the Great Commission is a command to lead people to Christ, it has not always embraced Continue reading

Which Door?

This is chapter one of my book, “Man of the World, Battling Satan’s Infiltration of the Church.” Click on the link to the right to see more.

There seems to be a default mode that people lean towards in church life. While the invitation of the gospel is to enter into a unique and special relationship with God through Christ, many people seem content with a life of religion. The problem is that there is nothing in the gospel that even hints that that is God’s goal for a believer. Yet, there are many people who are active church members who are content with their religious routine and not even remotely concerned that the life of God is not a living reality for them. Yet, that is why Jesus came. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3, NKJV). And, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The thief is Satan. He is the author of lifeless religion. But, Jesus came that we may know God and experience His life as a living reality on a daily basis. And notice, He said He came to bring an abundant life. This is not a normal, run of the mill common life that is content with sitting in pews and attending committee meetings. This is a supernatural, extraordinary, uncommon life that walks with the living God! This is the kind of life that is filled with a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). This is a life that experiences a peace that transcends understanding (Philippians 4:7). This is a life that knows every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). In short, this is a life that knows God. Let that sink in. Knows. God.

So, before we look at the specifics of how Satan seeks to derail God’s will for the church, (something that he is quite skilled at) I have a question for you. Continue reading

Closing Doors

What motivates people to come to church? I recently had this conversation with a person who attends church every time the doors are opened. We recently began a men’s group for the express purpose of promoting and encouraging men to be followers of Christ. The conversation began as a response to our men’s discipleship group. I was told, in effect, that the group was useless as it does not give men answers to the problems they face in daily life. Right. It is not meant to. It was designed for the express purpose of encouraging men to be disciples.

But, the conversation was very productive. I was asked what my goal for the church was. I explained that I want the church to become a place where people are saved (come to know Jesus as Savior), and where they learn to be disciples (learn to follow Christ), and where they are sent out as servants with the gospel of Christ. The response I received was very revealing. It began with a sigh, a lowered voice, and a slumping of the shoulders. Considering that non-verbal’s account for 93% of communication, that was a loud expression of disapproval.

Next came the statement, “I was hoping you would understand why people come to church.” Essentially I was told that the reason people come to church was to find answers for their problems. “Everyday life beats people up. They come looking for answers to their addictions, personality disorders, family problems, relational problems, etc. etc.,” I was told. In effect, I was being informed that I was out of touch with people. There was not a complaint that I had not addressed an urgent need in ones life, but just the general sense was given that I did not understand people. Hmm.

Immediately after that conversation Continue reading

Membership -vs- Discipleship

As a church, we need to lose the concept of “Church Membership.” Nowhere in scripture are we called to church membership. Instead, with acute clarity, scripture makes it clear that we are to be followers of Christ (see Matthew 4:19).

The word “membership” carries with it ideas that are contrary to the spirit of being a disciple. When one seeks membership to an organization, she is seeking the entitlements and benefits of that organization. With membership comes perks. However, with discipleship comes obligations and duty. Members seeks to have needs met. Disciples seek to serve.

In any given church, you have people who match the description of each type. Those who joined the “membership” expect a return on the dues (tithes) they pay into the system. Their contributions earn them the right to receive the benefits of membership. I recently spoke with a man who was an amateur artist.  At best, his works were tolerable. Some of them expressed nice sentiments. One such picture attempted to communicate the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ – very nice thoughts. As a picture it failed. The man told me that he was very upset that a staff member of his church would not place the painting in the sanctuary during worship, and he even expressed annoyance that his pastor did not use the painting as a prop in his sermons for Christmas. As he explained this, he dropped the clue that he was involved in “membership,” and therefore expected his rights to be met. He said, “I’m going to the deacons since the staff member won’t use my painting!” Whoa! He saw the deacons as the governing board that makes sure members rights are seen to.

In contrast, a servant does not seek Continue reading

Unleashing the Power!

Much mischief has come to the church from people operating on manmade expectations. People like busyness, and they like productivity. But, some people seldom consider the impact that is being made for the Kingdom of God. I had a conversation with a man who told me about all the wonderful stuff his church was doing just a couple of years ago. However, he forget to mention the crisis that took place during that time: the number of people who left; the conflict in the church staff; the dishonest way certain committees attempted to manipulate church circumstances; the many people who weekly attacked the pastor after every sermon – and oh, there was the deacon who left his wife and kids and ran off with a woman in the choir half his age – oh those good old days! But, the church had programs, and appeared to be productive!!

And people wonder why churches cannot reach their communities. We have forgotten the gospel. The gospel is not about busyness and programs and productivity. It is about life transformation. It is about becoming a new creation in Christ. It is about righteousness and Godliness. It is about having the entirety of one’s life turned upside down – or should I say, turned right side up. It is about learning to live for God, as one learns to love God. That may not be very flashy. It may not have the outward appearance of being “productive,” whatever that means in the economy of God’s kingdom. But, it is the very heart of the gospel.

Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation….” The church that expects to see power again (we once called that revival) must make the gospel the center of church life. I don’t want the “good old days” to come back to the church. I want the power of God to rock the foundations of the church!

A couple of weeks ago there was an earthquake about sixty miles from where we live. A friend’s house now has a nice long crack on his basement floor because of it. The power of that earthquake reached far beyond its epicenter and impacted by friend’s house sixty miles away. The church will reach its community only when it learns that the gospel can unleash the power of heaven. When it does, homes and lives and families far from the church will feel the impact.

The reality is that the church that does not know the power of God must substitute true transformation with superficial busyness. A pox on that house! Let us get back to the gospel! And maybe God will have mercy and pour out the fullness of His Spirit, so we can once again see lives transformed through the gospel of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ!